The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest, review by Bruce Jacobs
Kate Tempest writes of her South London turf like one of its young, club-hopping, drug-tooting, ambisexual hedonists. She's a manic whirlwind who lives up to her chosen surname, a Zadie Smith if Smith were in her 20s again, an Amy Winehouse but with more self-discipline. Tempest is an artistic prodigy: rapper (Mercury Music Prize nominee for Everybody Down), acclaimed playwright (Wasted) and winner of the Ted Hughes poetry award (Brand New Ancients). She's got chops. Her first novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, is an engrossing story of young Londoners from the wrong side of the river struggling to make it in a world where options are limited, family ties are frayed, and a frothy pint and line of coke help make the days go by--yet they still have their dreams and yearn for love while "forcing a good time out of their tired, broken hearts."
Becky is a 26-year-old music video dancer, barista in her uncle's café and on-call "happy ending" masseuse who aspires to join a professional dance company and choreograph her own show. Her father's a lefty writer and politician in jail for sex crimes with his underage staff. Her mother is a born-again Jew who ran off to the American Midwest. Her boyfriend Pete is habitually unemployed, unmotivated, and jealous of her massage johns. Despite lofty ambitions, Becky lives in fear of "the next twenty years playing out in the space between the counter and the flat and the casting calls and the auditions she can't get.... Twenty years of nothing changing but the rent." Then Becky meets Pete's sister, Harry. An androgynous lesbian, Harry and her childhood classmate Leon are high-end drug dealers, serving both head-bobbing hipsters in trance clubs and their bespoke-suited bosses in skyscraper offices above the city. Becky and Harry connect, and The Bricks That Built the Houses becomes a modern urban love story--albeit one with a world of complications. Harry and Leon get set up by a new supplier and take off with his money and drugs. Pete's jealousy invades Becky's carefully compartmentalized world. The reliable "bricks" of family and meaningful work are not there to support their fragile lives.
Tempest has an observant eye for the look and behavior of her characters. Pete, for example, "walks on his tiptoes with a precarious strut that makes him look like he can't keep up with himself... unsteady on his legs like he's surprised at their length." She captures sprawling London in the early dawn as it "yawns and cracks the bones in her knuckles," and its suburbs where the "shops sell floaty dresses and designer pestle and mortars." Tempest's captivating The Bricks That Built the Houses is rich in detail, clever in plot and filled with characters who live on the edge but never quite give up.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.